Children’s services in the spotlight, but real spending cuts may be hard to avoid
Specialist support systems for vulnerable children will step up the agenda in coming months following the Queen’s Speech announcement of the new Children & Social Work Bill which has ambitions to double the number of children placed in adoptive families while in parallel delivering much more rigorous standards across the sector, the Bill will include new expectations of councils when acting as ‘corporate parents’ for children in all levels of formal care.
The announcement comes hot on the heels of latest data from independent healthcare analysts LaingBuisson which reports that social care services for children and young people and special education services (special schools and colleges) in the UK were estimated to be worth a combined £13.35 billion in calendar year 2015. Of this, social care services for children and young people were valued at £9.64 billion and special education services, representing special schools and colleges, were estimated at £3.71 billion.
Children and young people’s social care services and special education market values for England by provider sector (independent sector & public sector (‘the state’)) – 2015/16 projections for children’s social care services, and 2015 estimates for special education
Analysis from LaingBuisson shows that spending on children’s services in England fell by 4.4% in real terms between 2010/11 and 2014/15. For the five years of this current parliament, covering 2015/16 to 2019/20, local authorities face the universal social care challenge to get more for the same (or less) as their resource budget remains static (in nominal terms) but demand continues to increase. According to report author Philip Blackburn, the already very public commitment to protect adult social care spending during this period is likely to put pressure on other areas of local authority spending, including services for children and young people. Mr Blackburn said: ‘Going forward, over the next four years, local authorities are likely to attach a relatively high priority to children’s services but real decreases in spending may be hard to avoid. Additional funding for children in care may be hard to come by, particularly as the government has questioned the relationship between spending and quality for children’s services. Under this environment, improvements in care are likely to become ever more challenging.’
LaingBuisson estimates 89,630 children were placed in care (being looked after) in the UK at 31 March 2015, the highest ever level. Demand for care has been on a clear upward trend, as the numbers of children in care grew by an estimated 9.5% between 31 March 2010 and 31 March 2015. And pressures on the care system are building up, as care applications have recently grown acutely to reach a record high with CAFCASS reporting a 14% increase in care applications in 2015/16, up sharply from previous years.
In addition, a recent sharp contraction in adoption activity means many more children are remaining in the care system, prompting direct action by the Prime Minister to turn this trend around. LaingBuisson’s report shows that adoptions reached in excess of 7,000 in the UK in 2014, as the number of children adopted from care increased by 70% between 2010 and 2014, but that adoption activity moved downwards in 2015. Adoptions in courts in England and Wales fell by over 8% in 2015, and adoptions from care in England in the first half of 2015/16 were some 24% lower than in the same period in 2014/15.
Mr Blackburn added: ‘The government faces a clear challenge to reverse the recent slide in adoption demand within the care system. Essentially local authorities will have to prioritise long-term stability, or permanence, for children in care, though it must be in the child’s best interests. It remains to be seen what impact a legislative change will have.’
Within the wider children’s services sector LaingBuisson’s report highlights the challenge for local authority commissioners of children’s care services to seek ongoing efficiency savings to manage increasing care demand under tight fiscal conditions. This includes scope for commissioning efficiencies through regional (scale) commissioning partnerships, smarter commissioning practices, and unlocking joined up funding streams across health, care and education.
At the same time there is scope for providers of children’s care to deliver efficiencies through scale contracts, joined up care packages, and other innovative delivery models. Positive achievements from the government’s innovation programme are also likely to be eagerly anticipated. However, the need to make savings is also likely to put further downward pressure on average prices (for foster care and residential care), as LaingBuisson’s report illustrates.